Monday, May 28, 2012

E4: Get Lost

This is not a difficult game to play. I do not need to tell you how to play it, unless you’re like “OH NO MY ARROW KEYS DON’T WORK!” Then I could be like, “Whoa, bro. Clam down. You just have to click the arrows in the bottom left of your screen.” Past that, though, there is not a lot of mastery involved in J. Allen Henderson's “adventure game with a twist,” Get Lost.

But simple, my friends, can be beautiful. Or in this case, witty, sarcastic, delightful, confusing, and bizarre. It’s really great.

Get Lost is a point-and-click visually, aurally, and gamerly enhanced ode to the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, which I’m sure were a part of your rich childhood. Well, now can enjoy them anew in your maybe-not-so-rich adulthood (though who am I to judge?). Do you want to be a man? A woman? A rabbit? It’s your choice! All the characters, though their lives be nasty, brutish, and short (à la Hobbes), had a whole bunch fascinatingly diverse and twisted paths to explore. Maybe this time you should go northeast? Southwest? Up? Left? You will get lost. But it’s okay. That’s life.

Now listen, the game looks great. It really does. Everyone has a moustache. There are many candy stores. You can click on things and they do stuff. It’s cute and weird and maybe you’ll like it, too. On top of that, it sounds great. Really excellent use of piano as a sound effect paired with just the right music to match every scene. Every once in a while you run into some out-of-place 8-bit aspect of the world, which is charmingly and frankly described in the narrative as “8-bit” and are accompanied by some rambunctious action-game chip tunes.

Like any good game, there aren’t very many repercussions when you die. Sometimes you go back to the beginning, but come one. It’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. That’s really not so bad. And all of the narrative descriptions, including those of your deaths, are blunt and sarcastic. I greatly appreciate this.

Along the left side of your screen, you’ll see two bars: one labeled “bugs” and one labeled “eggs.” For a long time, I thought these were for absolutely nothing at all and were just some odd joke from the game designer. This was funny. Then I found an egg and realized they were actually for something, but just barely. This was also funny. Maybe I should keep playing and find them all, if that’s a thing. Maybe something cool will happen. I almost hope that nothing happens. That would be brilliant.

All in all, this game was great. Every time I started getting bored, something delightfully unexpected happened, often resulting in my demise. This game truly has fabulous and inspired writing. You should play it. If you find all the eggs and bugs, tell me what happens, okay?

My Rating:
I could…
a. be a rabbit, I guess.
b. Take it
c. Leave it

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jon Caplin: Reprisal

Bothering little virtual people possessing simplified or nonexistant emotional behaviours is an important part of the cathartic function provided by videogames. When I was in elementary school, The Sims were a big thing, and everyone was playing virtual dollhouse. Making endless denizens of computerland mate, soil themselves, or start a cooking fire in a two-metre square room with no windows or doors was of constant entertainment to our young minds. cuteso101 on Yahoo! Answers even wonders if The Sims 2 is the best game ever. 

As seen above, she is helpfully reminded by another user that because she is a girl she is unnaturally predisposed to enjoying The Sims and that it probably isn’t the greatest game ever. Too bad. If it were the greatest game ever, I could comfortably write this article as follows:

So like you know that game, The Sims, guys? Duh, of course you do. It is literally the greatest game ever [no sarcasm here in the alternate universe]. It came out in 2000 and still won six awards at the 2012 gaming Oscars. Well listen, I know you’re mostly playing The Sims right now so you don’t care, but hear me out: there is another game. I know!! CRAZY, RIGHT?

So like in this game--which is kind of like The Sims--you like move dirt and stuff--which you can totally do in The Sims too, and it’s better there--and then all these people like build houses and stuff on them--just like in The Sims, except that you don’t have to build the houses, they do it for you! [cue angry screams from the audience in this alternate world that this is just The Sims for girls or moms or whoever those gamers look down on] And then you tell them to do stuff and they do and it’s great! You can also put fireballs on people, which you can’t do in the Sims, and there are like levels and stuff. If you have a minute while your Sims game is busy Reticulating Splines, you should probably give this one a shot.

(un)Fortunately, we live in a world where there is not consensus that The Sims is the greatest game of all time. That being said, there still exists the hypothesized game of pushing around soil and dropping fireballs on little people, and it’s called Populous. 

Populous was released in 1989 by Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog Productions and invented the “God” genre of games, where your avatar is an unseen deity ruining the day of many little worshippers who you rely upon for the magical power of prayer, but not much else. How you keep them faithful is up to you. And to most players, the fun is all Schadenfreude and Sadism.

Through the next decade and a bit beyond, Molyneux used Bullfrog Productions, as well as its successor, Lionhead Studios, to continue to build on the experiences birthed by his first God game through the dystopian corporate future of Syndicate, to the slightly more humble Magic Carpet (you only get to be a wizard this time), and to its peak with probably the most majestic God simulator, Black and White, which took advantage of 3D graphics to make the cruelty of the “miracles” you provided much more thrilling.

Designer Jon Caplin has released a flash game called Reprisal which takes very fondly after Populous. It is very faithful to the original in feel, but also seems quite modern in its elegance. Reprisal is a good bit of neo-retro flashback to the early days of computer games, and if you don’t feel like loading up DOSbox to run creaky old Populous, it’s your best bet.

Scratch that, even if you have the energy and will to play Populous, play Reprisal. It’s well put together, cute, and I really feel for the little guys running around on my screen.

A thought has struck me: maybe I’m facilitating the murder of many electronic citizens by sharing this link. So, for my own moral well being, I beg of you to have a bit of mercy.

Here is the link. Now go forth and play.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jasper Byrne: Lone Survivor

The first time I played Bioshock, I got to the second level, and then turned it off in disgust and wrote a great big blog post (thankfully lost) about how much I was disgusted by its exploitation of violence and fear to prove its point. If you were trying to make a game with a message, I thought, why stoop to that level?

After putting it down for three weeks, I picked it back up again and raced through most of the rest of the game. It won me over. I was just being pretentious. The viscera was pretty thrilling once I got past the shock value. And that game--despite its flaws--is still something of a masterpiece.

I get an echo of that first reaction every time I pick up a new horror game. I’m deathly afraid and a bit grossed out by them. Maybe that’s the point. That hasn’t sullied my eventual respect for many titles, because even if the only emotion horror games can conjure up is fear, that’s a pretty strong feeling.

Predictably, I had the gut-disgust frustration reaction to Jasper Byrne’s side-scrolling survival-horror Lone Survivor after playing the first twenty minutes. Too many scary zombies and darkness and flesh-walls. But I’d heard so many good things. And it looked so neat. And the music was fantastic. And the writing was charming. And I pushed through.

Twenty minutes or so into the game, after it had almost completely frozen my mind with terror, my character trundled up to the first destination; tired, hungry, and scared. And through the outside wall of apartment 204, a faint sound. Could it be? Salvation? Human life?

Cool Jazz. There was a party in there. And everyone was piss-drunk.

OK game, you’ve got me.

But damn, do I still get really tired of dealing with zombies. Add to those shivering undead nightmares an oppressive and not especially transparent system for hunger, as well as for energy, and it’s a game which I find emotionally exhausting to play. A typical scenario follows: being chased by non-descript (read lovecraftly awful) bits of walking flesh through corridors while your character is bleary from sleep and hunger and you know you have only got enough bullets left to take down one of the zombies and they’re right behind you and oh no the battery is almost out on this flashlight and now you can’t see the buggers who are after you and you pause after you have some distance and open the inventory where there isn’t any food to be found and you collapse of exhaustion.

It’s a relief then that Lone Survivor builds in some really interesting ways of dealing with the horror around you. The player character’s comments on his environment are occasionally silly, in the way that someone suffering from cabin fever in an inexplicable situation must be expected to be. Furthermore, a truly surreal scenario is never but ten more minutes of play away, at which point excellent music usually kicks in, and twin peaks inspired oddity ensues.

And if things are getting really trying, there’s always the pills...

Early in the game you find a handful of differently coloured pills which aren’t accompanied by instructions. If you scour hard enough, some vagueities on their purpose can be found scribbled on pieces of paper or alluded to by a man with a box on his head. Through either non-clinical self-trials of these medications or careful extrapolation from the hints I found, I figured out that I could use the green or the blue pills before I went to sleep to end up in a few dream sequences where mysterious individuals appeared to be able to answer my questions. Ah, but of course, as can be expected from narcotics induced lucid dreams, more questions are asked than answers given.

As the horror ramped up, and my concerns about where to go to move on, and where to find light, and where to find bullets, and where to find food began to overwhelm me, I found myself running back to bed more often to eat some cheese and crackers, take the green pill and fall asleep. The man with a box on his head was always there, and each time had a new question for me. Each time, a reveal of what is going on in this zombie-world is teased, and each time that relief is denied. But I take more and more pills. 

“Maybe a blue next? No, why did I take a blue, what a waste of a night, I could have taken another green. He would have had an answer this time.” The whole while the food is running out, the days are passing by, and I’m staying in bed, dreaming.

I haven’t finished Lone Survivor yet because I’ve been busy with real life. Some mornings I wake up, and I don’t want to go to work. The customers can seem a bit like a horde of emotionless zombies. Often enough in real life, I would love to take an ibuprofin and go back to sleep, rather than facing those zombies outside. So while I’m not done with the game, I feel I can safely thank it for giving me another world in which to contemplate staying in bed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Double Dog Ludum Dare Vol I: Geometries Around Explosions

Double Dog Ludum Dare is a series where we explore games made for Ludum Dare events, a series of game jams with a time limit of one weekend. The most recent iteration, the 23rd, was held from April 20th-23rd, 2012. The theme this time around was “Tiny World.” Because of the stringent time limit, the finished products range from haiku-like pieces of inspired design, to completely scattered, dysfunctional skeletons. We subject ourselves to it all. (to try out the games, click the blue headers, duh.)

Birchmountain: Cylcubere Origins

Right off the bat, a real winner. A sinister smiling face greets you and a downwards pitch-shifted voice says, “Hello.” Then, “What is your favourite geometry?” Your choices are Cube, Sphere, Cylinder, and curiously, Cylcubere, a portmanteau combining the three previous geometries. The idea of a cylcubere freaks me right out, and I don’t want to think about it.

Next, the face asks your favourite colour. Then the lights come on. In my case, a red sphere was in the middle of the room. A personification of my particular affections. The face was revealed to belong to the cylcubere, who proceeded to test my typing abilities, followed by my abilities to keep my mouse cursor in a moving square. Both very important skills indeed. The difficulty came when for whatever reason the mechanism which was supposed to recognize that my mouse cursor was indeed in the square malfunctioned and the malicious cylcubere roasted my sphere in jets of flame.

And so for me, the game was ended. Like I said, a real winner.

Naouak: Fire Around

You play a spacecraft trapped in orbit around a tiny world. You can adjust the radius of your orbit, but otherwise, your craft keeps spinning around and around and around and around. If you fire your green bullets they spin around and around and around and around as well. If an enemy spaceship happens to appear in the path of your bullets, it goes boom and falls to earth, the remainder burning up in the atmosphere.

Of course, those enemies are shooting back at you, and you get stuck in this loop of bullets which goes around and around and around and around the world and eventually you can’t deal with the shots orbiting around and around and around and around. And then your spaceship goes boom and falls to earth, the remainder burning up in the atmosphere.

A great execution on a nice concept for a shmup, and the perpetual rotation made the whole ordeal pretty disorienting. Very difficult to wrap the head around (and around and around and around).

Tempest: Materia

Made in only 24 hours, Materia is a bit like playing nuclear jenga. You are tasked with collecting cubes of various colours without compromising the integrity of the Materia. Because then it explodes. And the game’s over. No one wants the game to be over, do they?

You expend energy to collect cubes. White cubes give you few points, but at little consequence. Orange cubes give you many more point, but require more energy. Pink cubes eat away at the integrity of the whole structure. Finally, red cubes give you a lot of points, but almost completely compromise the integrity of the Materia. Every 100 points, you can progress to the next level, where a new structure is displayed for you to dismantle.

The play field is presented similarly to the sadly unheralded Picross 3D for the Nintendo DS. For those who haven’t played that game (most people, I’d imagine) let me explain. You have a structure which you can rotate along all axes with your mouse by holding the right button and dragging. Because you’re working with a 3D object, it’s important to be able to see it from any angle so as to catch any pesky, lurking cubes. By left clicking on a cube, it is chipped away, revealing what it underneath.

I find the execution of this project very impressive for a game developed in 24 hours, but it does show obvious limitations as well. It suffers from being repetitive very quickly (similar) because it involves the repetition of basically the same one mechanic for the entirety of the gameplay. The addition of a time limit per level may have helped this. One feature I found particularly interesting was that you aren’t forced to move on to the next level as soon as it is unlocked. Instead you can harvest more points off of the one you’re on, and carry those through. By completely mining the first two levels out, I could completely skip the next three levels, because I’d already achieved the point requirements for them. This kind of idea would work very well if the scoring of points was based on skill, rather than tedious tenacity. By playing well and proving yourself, you would earn the right to skip through a few levels, to find a real challenge.

I think this is worth a play, if just to marvel at what the developer made all by himself, in one day.

This is what Ludum Dare is all about.

The Men Who Wear Many Hats: Organ Trail

Remember Oregon Trail? That game you played in grade 2, eagerly stuffing a floppy disc into one of 5 of the school's computers, slyly smiling to yourself that those teachers thought this was an educational game. Little do they know!

Or little did you know. You actually did learned a lot of stuff in that game, didn't you? I bet you didn't know what dysentery was until this stage in your life. Perhaps you didn't know where Oregon was. Maybe this little game sparked your interest in 19th century American history. Or maybe it gave you the idea of one day following this trail yourself, fording streams and hunting for your own food. Real woodsy. (Of course, it wasn't until later that you realized that hunting is harder than the click of a mouse, when your wagon tips over in the stream it's actually a big deal, and writing funny epitaphs for your friends isn't so funny anymore.)

But Oregon Trail was a teaching game about the pioneer life of the past. The Men Who Wear Many Hats' game Organ Trail is all about the zombie-fighting life of the future. No stream-fording or ox-feeding here. Oh no. Here, at the end of the world, you will learn about fighting off hoards of ravenous undead, scavenging for canned soup and bags of chips, and repairing your beat-up, wood-paneled station wagon. (Okay, so that part might not be so futuristic. But you have to admit, they don't make them like they used to.)

I must admit, I didn't manage to complete the Organ Trail. In fact, it was a complete disaster. Karen wandered off somewhere near St. Louis, never to be found again. We had to leave her behind. Robert kept breaking all his limbs (who knows how he managed that, seeing as we all just sat in the car all day and night). Food was always scarce, we were all weak, and Robert and Mitchell kept getting seriously ill. Sometimes it rained. Sometimes it snowed. It was never quite clear what season it was. Despite the fact that we travelled by day as much as possible, Theo got a zombie bite somewhere around Memphis and we had to put him down. (Yes, "Kill Party Member" is an option available to you.) Soon after (perhaps of a broken heart?) Mitchell became "incapacitated" and passed away. Robert and I made it 13 miles out of Salt Lake City before disaster struck: we ran out of fuel. With his broken arm and leg, Robert didn't stand a chance. After losing all hope, he too became incapacitated and quietly passed away. Alone, I was unable to fend off the zombies. Night fell, and I surrendered to my twitchy green fate.

I was pretty pleased with this game. Food-scavenging is just as fun as hunting, but scarier. You get to chat with your fellow trailmates. Most of the mechanics work just like Oregon trail, but with zombies. My two complaints: 
1) there really isn't very much innovation or improvement from the original game; and
2)you don't get to put up a tombstone for all of your departed comrades! While this would really suck in real life, I would argue it's one of the best parts of Oregon Trail, particularly when you play the game again and get to see all the clever bullshit you wrote on all of those tombstones.

Still, this is not a bad way of spending an hour. I don't know if I really want to play it again, which tells me that either Organ Trail has failed to be quite as compelling as its ancestor or that I've no longer the same drive to play this sort of repetitive, downtime-heavy storybook sort of game. Not quite sure which. I guess I'd better mosey out once more onto the Oregon Trail and find out.

My rating:
I could...
A. probably not kill a zombie in real life.
B. Take it
C. Leave it.